Group protests planned hospital labor, delivery unit closure

Protesters hold signs outside Warren Memorial Hospital on Wednesday afternoon. Michelle Matthiae, left, in the blue sweater, and Melanie Salins, to Matthiae's right, were leaders of the protest. Max Lee/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — When Kate Debord-Peter found out that the new Valley Health hospital was not going to have a labor and delivery unit, she was upset.

“I just found out about it,” Debord-Peter said. “My daughter was born here just this last year, and I can’t imagine having the rug pulled out from under you if you’re pregnant and due.”

On Wednesday, Debord-Peter joined about two dozen people outside Warren Memorial Hospital to protest the Valley Health decision.

Melanie Salins and Michelle Baxter Matthiae said that they recently began organizing an effort to get Valley Health to change its decision. Salins said that she received a permit from the town of Front Royal for the protest on Tuesday.

Members of the group, like Lauran Schliesske, a nurse at Randolph-Macon Academy, said they were concerned about the impact that removing hospital obstetric services from Warren County would have on women’s health in the area.

“It’s just a safety measure to be able quickly to get where you need to be to deliver the baby,” Schliesske said.

She added that she was mostly concerned by the speed with which Valley Health is closing its labor and delivery services at Warren Memorial Hospital. On Feb. 17, the hospital announced on Facebook that it would likely stop offering obstetrics services around May 1, due to staffing concerns.

Valley Health has disputed the assertion that the lack of labor and delivery services would have a serious impact on patients’ health. Julian Martinez, the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Warren Memorial Hospital, said that the additional travel times many women in Warren County and Shenandoah County would face would not significantly affect their outcomes.

“It’s not ideal, I understand,” Martinez said. “We all like to have access to health as close to home as possible. But it is not as big a concern, medically speaking, as is being posed out there.”

The hospital system, in a Feb. 21 news release, stated that clinicians in Valley Health Obstetrics and Gynecology in Luray and Front Royal Family Practice would continue offering services. The hospital system pointed patients toward birth care in Winchester Medical Center, which has a neonatal intensive care unit.

In returns to the Internal Revenue Service, Valley Health has cited access to obstetric services as a community health need in Shenandoah County. Shenandoah Memorial Hospital has not offered obstetric services since around 2009, Martinez said.

That calls into question whether the loss of obstetric services could have a health impact on women in the southern parts of Shenandoah County that are farther away from Winchester Medical Center.

“That area is the one area that might have the biggest impact when you think about transportation,” Martinez said.

Valley Health has stated that it decided not to include labor and delivery services at the replacement facility for Warren Memorial Hospital because the hospital had not seen enough births in recent years to justify continuing services. The hospital had 367 births in 2016, according to data from the American Hospital Association.

But protesters like Rebecca Gillespie argued that continuing development in the Front Royal area should mean that the number of births at Warren Memorial Hospital should increase.

“We’re having all this development here with new houses and new schools, and [Valley Health is] taking away choices,” Gillespie said.

Martinez said that the number of births has been slightly increasing but that the increase was not significant enough for Valley Health officials to offer labor and delivery services at Warren Memorial Hospital.

“I don’t think these decisions are done lightly and without good research as to what the impact is,” Martinez added.